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When Hollywood Cared About Chemical Spills

The East Palestine disaster was a sad sequel to Silkwood.

"Silkwood" Premiere - Los Angeles

Suppose a toxic train wreck happened and no one cared. Something like that recently happened in East Palestine, Ohio, where in February a Norfolk Southern train carrying all manner of noxious chemicals derailed. Neither Joe Biden nor Kamala Harris deemed it necessary to pay a morale-boosting visit, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg eventually put in an obligatory appearance only on the heels of the arrival in town of Donald Trump—who remains the highest-profile figure to express, in person, a level of care and concern commensurate to the catastrophe.

Numerous conservative talking heads have surmised that the Biden administration’s disinterest stemmed from the political makeup of East Palestine. In the 2020 election, Columbiana County preferred Trump over Biden 72 percent to 27 percent. For the governing class in 2023, East Palestine is a throwaway place with disposable, possibly even deplorable, people. 


This attitude represents a striking departure for the left, which, in earlier iterations, routinely cast itself as a movement in defense of ordinary people. Democratic presidents have gone from saying “I feel your pain” (Bill Clinton) to condescending to Joe the Plumber (Barack Obama).

Forty years ago, Hollywood still paid lip service to regular people and sometimes even meant it. In 1983, three proud liberals—director Mike Nichols, writer Nora Ephron, and actress Meryl Streep—turned their attention, earnestly and honestly, to a working-class woman who, much like those in East Palestine, found herself confronting the chemical horrors of our modern age.

Streep, already an Oscar-winner for Kramer vs. Kramer and Sophie’s Choice, stars as Karen Silkwood, a smart, sassy, assertive worker at a nuclear fuel plant in Oklahoma. After a series of mishaps expose her and her coworkers to plutonium, Karen initiates a kind of one-woman inquiry into her plant’s safety policies, procedures, and evident lapses. Eventually working in concert with labor union officials, Karen is poised to bring widespread attention to her workplace hazards when a car crash takes her life—a much-speculated-about episode that is presented ominously but ambiguously at the end of the film. 

At the outset, Karen is shown to have a largely contented attitude toward her life. She looks to be a capable and efficient employee, sufficiently self-confident to chew bubblegum, hands-free, while working with plutonium in a glovebox. Her home life is informal: She lives with two coworkers, her goes-along-to-get-along boyfriend Drew (Kurt Russell) and their sarcastic friend Dolly (Cher), who is gay and who, in time, invites her own lover into the communal fold. 

These are decent folks, not the salt of the earth, exactly, but honest, hard-working, fun-loving. They seem to enjoy the small, rundown clapboard house they share. Karen frantically rearranges her work schedule to find time to visit her young children from an earlier relationship, now living out of state with their father. When she returns home, she resumes gossiping in the locker room, casually bantering with Drew, and hastily “monitoring” herself (or not) for radiation exposure upon entering and exiting work. She notes with pride her choice to study science rather than home economics in school, and she contrasts her roots in Texas, whose very smell she detests, with her current life in Oklahoma—a life made possible by the plant.


For a film that eventually comes to share Karen’s panic about the dangers of plutonium, Nichols intuitively understands the way regular people reconcile themselves to a workaday existence: punching the clock during the day, cooling off at night, making plans for the always-anticipated weekend. Most people look for dignity in their work and pleasure in their off-time, whether they are employed in a nuclear fuel plant, a coal mine, or a fast food restaurant. 

That Nichols managed to grasp any of this is remarkable given that he originally emerged as an exemplar of postwar urban wit. Born in 1931, Nichols formed a legendary comedy duo with the fearsomely smart Elaine May in the 1950s and later as a film director gravitated toward material that was witty and worldly—his early masterpieces include Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Catch-22, and Carnal Knowledge. For much of his career, he was content to stay on his home turf of Manhattan, as in Heartburn, Working Girl, and Wolf—fine films all, marinated in a certain time in the city exemplified by the power lunch, the hustle and bustle of cabs, hot dog vendors, and chic dinner-party small talk. 

In Silkwood, Nichols’s famously glossy visual style proved a major advantage in comprehending a world far from his own. His inherently objective long takes present the particulars of Karen’s world—the flatness of the land, the tackiness of her wardrobe and hairdo, the banjo sitting in her bedroom—without comment or judgment. “It’s not very nice to make fun of what a person does,” says Dolly’s girlfriend Angela (Diana Scarwid), and Nichols follows her lead. 

Silkwood is often shocking. We experience a kind of primal terror when Karen is subjected to a brutal, scalding shower after activating a radiation monitor, and again when her home is dismantled, its wallpaper scraped and its furnishings tossed out, after it is said to contain traces of plutonium. (It is suggested in the film that this could have resulted from tampering by those objecting to Karen’s rabble-rousing.) “Where am I going to go now?” Karen asks plaintively. Nichols’s camerawork begins to isolate Karen, at one point using a slow, perfectly timed zoom to pick her out in a crowded union meeting.

As persuasively played by Streep, Karen is profoundly stirred by these experiences. Previously content with her lot, she now becomes acutely aware of the corner-cutting, economizing, and outright deceit that led to her state. “The movie itself was about an awakening, and I felt as though it were an awakening to me,” Nichols said in a 1991 interview in Film Comment magazine. Karen’s error was to assume that her betters had her interests at heart; she, like those who live in East Palestine, got a raw deal. 

Long considered the finest of actors’ directors, Nichols populated Silkwood with performers who believably inhabit their parts. Kurt Russell and Cher have just the right rough-and-tumble authenticity, and Karen’s coworkers—played by Fred Ward, David Strathairn, Sudie Bond, among others—believably vacillate between worry over their jobs and anxiety about their well-being. For Streep, the role was a bigger stretch. By 1983, audiences had come to associate the Yale School of Drama–trained actress with a certain high-born elegance. Somehow she credibly burrowed into Karen Silkwood’s psyche and plausibly inhabited her world. Nominated for numerous Oscars, Silkwood birthed a tiny subgenre of films that took up the cause of regular people in fights against giant forces, including Erin Brockovich and A Civil Action.

Seen again today, Silkwood can be accused of simply being opportunistic, but I choose to accept at face value the sincerity of Nichols, Streep, and the rest of the moviemakers. They cared about what had happened to Karen Silkwood, so they made a movie about her. By the same token, we must admit that Trump cared about what had happened in East Palestine, and that’s why he showed up bearing water bottles and promising free McDonald’s to first-responders. To the residents of East Palestine on that day, at that moment, that gesture was an even bigger deal than if a movie caravan had rolled into town.


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